A Note to Readers
We have written here about terrible things that we never wanted to think about again. But our story is not just about rape and chains, lies and misery. That was Ariel Castro’s world. Our story is about overcoming all that.
We want people to know the truth, the real story of our decade as Castro’s prisoners inside 2207 Seymour Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio.
For years we could see on TV that our families were looking for and praying for us. They never gave up, and that gave us strength. We videotaped news coverage of them holding vigils and replayed those tapes on our most desperate days. When it was very hard to believe we would ever be free again, and no longer enslaved by a cruel man, just writing the word “hope” over and over helped keep us going.
Now we want the world to know: We survived, we are free, we love life. We were stronger than Ariel Castro.
While we lived within feet of each other for years inside a very small house, our experiences were very different. Castro was a master manipulator who lied to each of us about the others so we wouldn’t trust one another and band together against him.
To tell our distinct stories, parts of this book are in Amanda’s voice and parts are in Gina’s, and we have clearly marked each.
Amanda kept a diary of more than 1,200 pages, and its entries are a key source for this book. They were written on McDonald’s napkins and takeout bags, on loose-leaf paper, in a kid’s dime-store journal, and even on the inside of empty cardboard boxes of Little Debbie cakes. Ariel Castro also shot many hours of home video over the years, and together with Amanda’s notes they form a vivid record of life inside that house, which has enabled us to write precisely about what was happening on specific dates and times.
Amanda was only seventeen when she started writing down her thoughts, and especially in the early years they are written in a teenager’s shorthand. A week after her abduction, for example, she wrote: “I asked him when he’s takin’ me home—he said MAYBE the last wk of June. I just don’t want no one 2 4-get about me. Ima go 4 now. PRAY 4 me!” To make it easier on readers, we have expanded that shorthand, and use italics when we quote Amanda’s diary exactly as written.
Other parts of this book involve matters that were taking place outside the house that we could not possibly have known about. To explain those, we have relied on Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, the journalists who helped us write this book. Their reporting has enabled us to learn about law enforcement’s search for us, the school bus driver who stole a decade of our lives, his violent relationship with his common-law wife, and his long history of domestic violence.
Mary, who grew up on the west side of Cleveland, and Kevin reviewed thousands of pages of police reports and court transcripts, watched hours of Castro’s videotaped interviews with police, visited Castro’s hometown in rural Puerto Rico, and interviewed Castro’s family members and scores of other people to help investigate how our kidnappings happened and went unsolved for so long.
Michelle Knight was also a captive in Castro’s house and we invited her to join us in writing this book, but she decided to tell her story by herself. She appears throughout our account when she had significant interactions with us. We wish her only the best as we all try to recover and rebuild our lives.
We are inspired every day by Jocelyn Berry, who was born on a Christmas morning in the house on Seymour Avenue. She made a dark place brighter, and in many ways helped save us.
Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus
February 10, 2015
My phone chimes. A text message.
Who could that be? It’s after midnight, and I’m in bed. Jocelyn is asleep next to me, just like every night since she was born six years ago. That’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed in the four months since I kicked my way out of that hell house.
I’m staring at the message from my aunt Susie: Did you hear that he killed himself?
I freeze. A minute passes, then another. Can this be real?
I start to feel sick. The phone rings, and it’s my aunt Theresa: “Did you hear? It’s breaking news on Channel 19 that Ariel Castro killed himself.”
I slip out of bed so Jocelyn doesn’t wake up, and I run downstairs and turn on the TV.
His mug shot takes up the entire screen.
“Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro is dead. He apparently hanged himself in his cell tonight. He had served a little over a month of his sentence: life in prison plus a thousand years.”
My stomach knots up. It’s hard to breathe.
How dare he do this? How dare he?
He kidnapped me, chained me like a dog in his house, and raped me over and over. Because of him, my mother died without knowing if I was dead or alive. She was only forty-three, and I can never forgive him for breaking her heart.
But he was Jocelyn’s father. She loves him, and he loved her. He never hurt her. He took her to the library, to the mall, to McDonald’s. He even took her to church. I hid the reality of 2207 Seymour Avenue from her as best I could, hoping that she would think her home was no different from anybody else’s.
Ariel Castro deserved to be in jail, forever. But now that he’s suddenly dead, I don’t know what to feel, and that confusion is running in rivers down my cheeks.
I’m sitting on the floor in my living room, talking to my mom and my brother, Ricky. Since I got out of Ariel Castro’s prison four months ago, I am with my family night and day. I hate to be by myself. I’m still afraid.
I was walking home from the seventh grade in April 2004 when he tricked me into his car. I turned fifteen locked inside Seymour Avenue, and then sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, and twenty-three. He made me want to kill myself, and I felt so sad and alone that for months at a time I barely got out of bed.
A big “Breaking News” bulletin comes across the TV screen: ARIEL CASTRO IS DEAD.
Everyone in the living room stops talking.
I don’t feel anything, but only stare at the TV, numb.
I just had a dream a couple of nights ago that two prisoners got into his cell and killed him, and that his body was found naked in a pool of water.
Now he’s really dead.
Or at least the prison officials being interviewed on TV say he is. I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe they are claiming he’s dead so people will stop talking about him. Our story has been nonstop bad news for Cleveland. Maybe they think pretending he’s dead will quiet things down.
Or maybe he’s behind this somehow. He’s so sneaky and clever, anything’s possible with him. I learned that the hard way, and I don’t trust anything about him. But on TV they keep reporting that he’s dead, so maybe he really is gone.
I call Michelle, and we both agree that it would have been better for him to suffer in prison for the rest of his life.
I text Amanda, not wanting a call to wake up Jocelyn, and she calls me right back.
“I didn’t want him to die this way—nobody should. I wanted him to be in prison like we were,” I tell her. “I wanted him to be locked up and left with his thoughts, because his thoughts would eat him alive.”
I can tell Amanda is upset, and I know that dealing with this is going to be more complicated for her.
When I hang up, I start thinking that it might actually be good that he’s gone. Now he can’t hurt anybody else.
I start crying—not because he’s dead, but because he hurt me so badly for so long.
The phone keeps ringing. I know it’s news reporters, so I don’t pick up. What could I say? I don’t know what I think or feel.
I start remembering all the times he talked to me about his fear of prison, how he said he would kill himself before going to jail. He said he would rather die in a gunfight with police than let them put him behind bars. But I never thought he would have the guts to hang himself.
And so soon. After holding us prisoners for years, he couldn’t stand being locked up for even a few months? And his mom was allowed to visit.
My sister, Beth, is sleeping upstairs. She’s not feeling well, and I don’t want to wake her up, so I sit alone.
My aunt Theresa calls again.
“Think of everything he did to you. It’s good that he’s gone.”
Maybe she’s right.
But all I can really think of is that Jocelyn never got to say good-bye to her daddy. After we escaped from Seymour Avenue in May and drove away in an ambulance, we never saw him again. Now it’s September and he’s dead.
When Jocelyn turned eighteen she would have been able to visit him in prison and ask him all the questions I know she will have. It’s cruel that he took away her chance to face him one day.
I wonder which was harder for him: being behind bars, or knowing that his grown kids and the whole world learned of his sick double life. What others thought of him mattered a lot to him. He craved respect. He thought he deserved it as a self-taught musician and because he had grown up in poverty but now owned his own house and drove nice cars.
After Jocelyn was born, he began to pretend we were a normal family, and I think he actually convinced himself we were. He locked me in his house but took Jocelyn out to help him pick flowers for me. For a decade he was my whole life and often the only person I had to talk to.
Now he’s dead.
Right now that feels like more pain, more sadness, and more loss.
April 21, 2003: Maroon Van
I wake up at noon on the day after Easter. I was up late again listening to Eminem. His song “Superman” usually cheers me up: “They call me Superman, I’m here to rescue you.” I have his posters all over my bedroom—on the walls, my mirror, the closet door. But today even Em can’t help me feel better.
My mom pushes my door open and sticks her head in. I’m still in bed, upset.
“Mandy, I’m off to work. See you tonight. Love you!”
“Love you, too. See you later.”
We live in the upstairs part of a duplex at West 111th Street and Belmont Avenue, near Cleveland’s Westown Square Shopping Center. It’s not a bad place, except for the noise from all the cars and trucks whizzing by on I-90, the highway just beside the house. My older sister, Beth Serrano, lives downstairs with her husband, Teddy, and their two little girls, Mariyah, age four, and Marissa, age three.
Teddy is the reason I’m so miserable. He and my sister are having a fight. She’s furious. Teddy is the manager of the Burger King where I work and I don’t want to see him today because he’s made my sister so upset.
Outside my window I hear Beth drive off with my mom in her old Chevy Lumina. They work together at a tool and die factory over on Brookpark Road assembling metal parts: a thirty-nine-year-old mom and her twenty-three-year-old daughter standing side by side, putting little metal pieces together like a puzzle. No one ever told them what the part they make is for, but when they fill a box with a hundred of them, they start over on a new box.
A lot of parents in my neighborhood do hourly work like my mom, and then their kids drop out of school and join them in the same jobs, getting by but not going far. My dad moved back to Tennessee with another woman, so my mom works minimum-wage jobs and I try to pitch in and pay for things like my schoolbooks.
I blast more Em in my room. My stereo speakers are on my dresser, next to my porcelain angels and Nativity set. I keep the angels and baby Jesus out all year, not just at Christmas, because they make me happy.
I jump in the shower and stay under the hot water for an extra-long time, wondering if I should quit my job because of this mess with Teddy. I don’t want to. It’s the first job I’ve ever had and I’ve met some nice friends there. I started nearly a year ago when I turned sixteen, and I’ve already gotten a raise to six dollars an hour, almost a dollar more than when I started. Lots of people work there a long time and never get raises, so I guess they like me. It’s nice, too, to hear customers tell me I have a pretty smile.
I need money because one day I’m going to go to college. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to study—maybe clothing design. I love clothes and obsess over every detail, right down to my shoelaces, which I make sure always match my shirt.
If I did quit today, I wouldn’t miss this Burger King uniform: burgundy shirt, black jeans, and black sneakers. I drew the line at those nasty polyester pants. The shirt was bad enough, but they weren’t going to get me to wear those pants, too.
I pull my work shirt out of a drawer and leave two identical ones folded there. I like everything ironed and orderly. I have a system for hanging up my clothes: light pink shirts together, close to, but not mixed with, darker pinks. All my whites are together. Pressed jeans are organized from light blue to darker. I arrange my shoes on the floor by heel height, starting with flats and sneakers and moving up to wedges and high heels.
Tomorrow is my seventeenth birthday, and a few friends are coming over to celebrate with me, so I should be excited. I check my money hidden in a glittery pink box in the back of my bra drawer. I have a hundred dollars tucked away, and to celebrate I’m going to splurge on a new outfit and get my nails done.
Why not call in sick? It might be nice just to stay home and read my magazines. I have subscriptions to Entertainment Weekly, People, and Rolling Stone, and keep old copies stacked neatly in my room.
But I don’t want to work on my birthday, so I guess I should just go. It’s only the four-to-eight shift. I can do this.
I’d better hurry; it’s ten minutes to four.
I pick up my black Burger King baseball cap and carry it, because there’s no way I’m wearing that on the street. I pull on my black sweater and head out the front door into a gray April afternoon.
• • •
Work is a ten-minute walk. After I pass a couple of houses and turn right onto West 110th Street, I can see the traffic light ahead at the corner of Lorain, where the Burger King is.
I cross the long bridge over I-90 and watch the cars whizzing by, carrying people going places. Someday I’m heading somewhere better. I am not going to live like my mom, always worried about how to pay the bills. She has been a clerk at Kmart, a BP gas station, the deli counter at the Finast grocery store, and even the Burger King where I work now. Because she dropped out of middle school, she hasn’t been able to get anything better. After I graduate from college I am going to earn enough money to buy my own house. My mom can live with me, and then maybe I can make her life a little easier.
I pass Westown Square, where we buy just about everything: food at the Tops grocery store, movies at the Blockbuster, clothes at Fashion Bug. Beth has found cute outfits for the girls at the thrift shop, Value World.
Right at four I arrive at work. God, that smell. French fries and burgers. Grease. It never comes out of my uniform, even after I wash it. I feel as if it’s soaked into my skin.
I drop my sweater and my purse in the back, where the head manager, Roy Castro, hangs out. I’m working “back cash” today, which means I take the orders and money at the drive-through window.
After Roy sets up my cash drawer I walk over to my work station. My friend Jennifer is working “front cash,” at the main counter, and I see Teddy standing there. Our eyes meet, and I shoot him daggers.
I plug in my headset.
“Welcome to Burger King. May I take your order?”
Here we go again.
Time ticks by slowly. It would be easier if we were busier, but it’s the Monday after Easter, and it’s dead. I try not to talk to anybody. Roy knows I’m having a hard time, so around seven fifteen he asks if I feel like going home early. He doesn’t need to ask me twice. I’m so ready to get out of here.
I grab my things and sit down at a table to call my boyfriend, DJ, to see if he will pick me up. No answer. I call him again, but still no answer. I would love to see him tonight. We’ve only been dating for a month, but I like him. He holds my hand and opens doors for me. I first saw him when he ordered food at the drive-through. Jennifer knew him and said he was nice. He kept coming back and asking about me if I wasn’t there, then finally we went out.
Right now I just wish he would answer his phone. Where is he?
I almost never walk home. For one thing, more people are around in the evening, and I don’t like being seen in my Burger King uniform. But the big reason is that my mom doesn’t like me coming home alone at night. She never learned to drive, so she has Beth pick me up.
But Beth and Mom are still at work, and I am definitely not hanging out in this soap opera one minute longer than I have to. It’s seven thirty, still light outside, and I start walking.
• • •
My phone rings as I head home. Beth says she is cutting out of work now, and I tell her I’m doing the same thing.
“We can get you. What time should I pick you up?”
“No, don’t worry. I’m already walking home.”
As we start discussing Teddy, I see an old maroon van blocking the sidewalk ahead. A guy has turned into a driveway on West 110th, but hasn’t pulled all the way up.
I walk around the front of the van to get by. Because I’m still on the phone I’m not paying much attention, but I notice that the girl in the passenger seat looks familiar. I’m pretty sure she used to work at Burger King with me. The driver—it must be her father—is looking right at me and smiling. I smile back as I keep walking.
A minute later his van pulls up alongside me, and he rolls down his window. No cars are coming in either direction, so he’s just stopped in the middle of the street.
“Hey, you need a ride home?”
Now I can see him more clearly and definitely remember having seen him before, but I’m not exactly sure where. I’m halfway home, maybe a five-minute walk, and don’t really need a ride, but it’s nice of him to offer.
Still talking to Beth I nod “yes” to him and start walking toward the van.
When he reaches over and opens the front passenger door, I notice that his daughter is not in the car anymore. I rush Beth off the phone as I climb in.
“Beth, I gotta go because I’m getting a ride.”
He starts to pull away as I hang up the phone.
“Where is your daughter?” I ask, as I suddenly realize I am alone in a car with an older guy I don’t really know.
“So you work at Burger King?” he says, not answering the question but smiling and friendly. I’m still in my uniform, with my “Amanda” name tag, so it’s an easy guess where I work.
I’m starting to get a weird feeling, but he seems nice enough. He’s dressed cooler than guys his age: he’s all in black, from his T-shirt to his jeans to his boots, and he’s listening to 107.9, hip-hop and R&B.
“My son used to work at Burger King. Do you know him? Anthony Castro?”
That’s who he is! He’s Anthony’s dad. Anthony is no relation to Roy Castro, the manager, but I know Anthony, and so does my mom.
“Oh, yeah, I know Anthony. He came to my house one time. He’s friends with a friend of mine.”
I tell him I also went to Wilbur Wright Middle School with his daughter Angie. “How’s she doing?” I ask, more relaxed now that I know who he is.
“She’s good,” he says. “She’s at the house right now. Would you like to go see her?”
“Okay. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
Why not go see her? I wasn’t looking forward to going home anyway.
He makes a few turns away from my house and then pulls out onto I-90, cheerfully talking about his kids.
“That’s a nice phone,” he says, looking over at the little blue phone in my hand. A few of my friends have cell phones, and I just bought this one a week ago, used, from a girl at work.
We turn off the highway at West 25th Street, take a few more turns, and then pull onto Seymour Avenue.
I know this neighborhood. It’s only about a ten-minute drive from my house, and I have cousins who live close by, on Castle and Carlyle. There are so many Spanish-speaking people here that they call it Little Puerto Rico.
We pull into the driveway at 2207 Seymour. It’s a white, two-story house. Nothing special, that’s for sure. He drives to the back, where a big, mean-looking dog is barking like crazy right outside the passenger side of the van. It’s one of those Chow Chows, with a huge bushy head. The dog is chained to a tree, but the chain’s long enough to reach the van. I’m glad I’m inside.
He mentions my phone again.
“That’s really nice; let me see it for a minute.”
I hand it to him.
“Wait, let me hold the dog back so you can get out,” he says, taking my phone with him as he jumps out of the van and pulls the dog away by its collar.
“Angie’s inside,” he says. “Let’s go see her.”
We walk to the back door. He unlocks it and we step inside a small enclosed porch cluttered with boxes. Then he unlocks yet another door into the house.
I follow him inside.
• • •
He turns on the light in the kitchen. It’s so messy. Definitely could use some cleaning up.
He points to the closed bathroom door.
“Angie must be taking a bath right now,” he says. “While she’s in there, let me show you around the house.”
“Oh, okay,” I tell him. “That’s very nice of you.”
We walk into the small dining room, then into the living room, which has dark wood paneling and a black leather couch. He has a big stack of old phone books, family photos all around, and the two biggest stereo speakers I have ever seen. I’m five-foot-one, so they must be four feet tall.
“C’mon, I’ll show you upstairs,” he says, when he’s already halfway up.
As I reach the top landing, I see that it’s pretty dark up there. There are a couple of closed bedroom doors, and he points at one of them.
“My roommate is in here,” he says. “She’s sleeping.”
That’s weird, I think. Maybe he got divorced from Anthony and Angie’s mom? I guess he has a roommate now to help with the rent.
“Take a look,” he says.
The doorknob is missing, and I bend down to look through the big hole where it should have been. A girl is sleeping there, with a TV on. I look only for a second, because it feels strange to peek into somebody’s room.
We walk into a big bedroom and then a smaller one beyond it. And when I turn to leave, he suddenly blocks the door.
“What are you doing?” I ask him, startled.
“Pull down your pants!”
“No!” I shout. I am panicking and can’t believe what he just said. “Take me home! I want to go home!”
There is a girl across the hall, and his daughter is downstairs, so what could he be doing?
I look directly at him for the first time. He’s maybe in his forties, older than my mom. He has curly brown hair, dark eyes, a receding hairline, and a goatee. He’s about five-foot-seven and stocky, with a bit of a beer belly. If I passed him in the mall, I’d never even notice him.
“Pull down your pants!” he orders again.
He has suddenly turned so scary—his voice, his eyes, his manner—and I do what he says. I stand there, crying, my jeans around my ankles. Why didn’t I see this coming? How could I be so stupid? Just because I know his kids doesn’t mean I should have gone with him to his house.
He pulls his pants down and starts playing with himself. It’s disgusting.
There’s a window behind him with lace curtains. He glances outside and says something about police. I look out and see a police car parked across the street. The cops are so close! He says he’ll hurt me if I make a sound.
He hurries what he’s doing and when he finishes, his voice changes back, and he sounds like the nice guy who was talking to me in the car.
“I’m going to take you home now,” he says and tells me I can pull my pants back up.
“Please,” I beg him. “Please take me home.”
I start praying, asking God to get me out of here.
We start toward the door but then he suddenly stops.
“Turn around, get on the bed, and take your pants down.”
“No! No!” I scream. “If you don’t take me home right now I’m going to call the police!”
I blurt that out even though I know I can’t call anyone. He still has my phone.
“Help! Help me!”
Doesn’t his roommate hear me? What’s going on in this house?
I run back into the bigger bedroom and try to open the door to the hallway but there’s no knob. I see a doorway next to it and run into it, but it’s a closet.
I’m cornered, crying, when he grabs me by the arms and drags me over to the bed, where he yanks off my pants and rapes me. He must be fifty pounds heavier than me, and it hurts so bad.
When he is done, he gets up and says, “I’m going to take you home now, but you have to be quiet.”
I’m terrified and I know he is lying.
“I’m going to tape your mouth so you don’t scream any more until I get you home,” he says as he reaches for a roll of gray duct tape, tears off a long piece, and slaps it over my mouth from ear to ear.
He slams my wrists together and tapes them, too, and then does the same to my ankles. Then he takes out a leather belt, and I freeze. Is he going to beat me with it? Hang me? I don’t move as he slowly wraps the belt around my ankles, over the tape.
He takes a motorcycle helmet from the closet and pulls it over my head. I can see out of the visor until my tears make everything foggy.
“Don’t worry,” he says, as if he is actually trying to help me. “I’m just doing this so I can carry you to the van and take you home.”
He picks me up and throws me over his shoulder. My head is dangling down by his butt, and every part of my body hurts. He carries me down to the first floor, then takes me into the basement.
He sits me down on the cold concrete floor and props my back against a pole. He takes a thick rusty chain, like a tow truck might use to pull a car, and wraps it around my stomach and the pole. He clamps it shut with a padlock and puts the key in his pocket. We are not going out to the van.
He pulls off the motorcycle helmet and turns on a little black-and-white TV, setting it on a tiny stool.
“Be quiet. Don’t scream. Don’t try to get away,” he says in an oddly calm voice as he switches off the one bare lightbulb and walks back upstairs.
I look around and see piles of clothes, boxes of junk, and dusty shelves filled with knickknacks. It smells like wet dirt, like the basement hasn’t been aired out in years. It is so creepy.
I have to break out of here. I put my taped hands up to my face and use my fingertips to pick at the tape across my mouth.
“Somebody help me! Somebody help me!” I scream when I get it loose. “Please! Someone hear me!”
I bite into the tape on my wrists and begin to chew it off, bit by bit. It takes forever, but I finally get my hands free and quickly pull the belt and tape off my ankles.
Now my nails are broken and my fingertips are bleeding. I struggle to get this chain off my waist, but it’s so tight I rip my shirt trying. My jeans are kind of thick, so I wriggle out of them, hoping that if I have that extra bit of room I can slip out of the chain. But I can’t.
“Somebody please help me!” I scream over and over, not knowing what else to do.
He’s going to come back and kill me, and I’m going to die because I took a ride from a dad who turned out to be a psycho.
I have no idea what time it is, but while I have been fighting with the chain many TV shows have come and gone, so hours must have passed. Cops is on as I finally fall asleep against the pole.
• • •
I wake to the sound of heavy footsteps. My body tenses up. He’s back. How long have I been asleep?
“I told you not to try to get away,” he says in a cheerful voice, looking at all the ripped tape.
It’s so strange how nicely he’s talking to me, like we’re friends playing a game.
“I brought us breakfast,” he says, holding out a Burger King bag. “But first we’re going to take a shower.”
He unlocks the padlock, loosens the chain, and helps me stand up. Since I couldn’t get my jeans back on, I’m wearing only my shirt and underwear. He walks me up the stairs, staying close behind, and guides me into the bathroom off the kitchen, where he tells me to undress and get in the shower. Then he takes his clothes off and comes in, too, and with a washcloth rubs away the sticky stuff from the tape around my mouth and ears.
“Here, let’s get this off,” he says sweetly, like he’s washing a baby, and then he begins to shampoo my hair.
I am disgusted by his touch. I want to run away from him, but I’m trapped.
I’m afraid he is going to attack me again, but instead he climbs out of the shower and finds some Band-Aids for my bloody fingers. He gets dressed and gives me a pair of jogging pants and one of his shirts, then takes me into the living room. We sit on the couch, and he hands me a cold ham-and-egg croissant.
He’s talking, but I’m in shock and can’t focus.
“It’s time to go upstairs,” he says after I finish eating.
What choice do I have? I follow him up the stairs and into the bedroom where he raped me.
“Just lay down and relax,” he says, pointing to the mattress, which has no sheets.
He lies down beside me, and I brace myself for what’s next, but he seems exhausted, like he was up all night. At least an hour passes, maybe more. He is inches from me, asleep, or pretending to be. I’m afraid to move or make a sound. My mom and Beth must be losing their minds, so scared about what has happened to me. I am so scared about what is happening to me.
Then, suddenly, he opens his eyes, stands up, and says, “Let’s go downstairs.”
He walks me back down to the basement, sits me against the pole, and locks the chains tight around my stomach. I cry and cry, but he only turns up the volume on the TV, shuts off the light, and walks back upstairs without a word.
It’s so dark.
Then I remember: It’s my birthday.
April 25, 2003: Alone in the Dark
He has moved me upstairs into the bedroom where he first raped me. It’s not pitch-black like the basement, where I spent the first two nights, but it’s still dark. There are two small windows covered with heavy gray curtains that were probably white once.
I have to lie sideways on the queen-size bed, my toes hanging off the edge, because of the way he has me chained to the radiator. The padlock on the rusty chain around my stomach feels like a big rock. Its weight makes it hard to sleep, and it’s giving me huge purple bruises.
He came in yesterday and put some old socks around the chain so it wouldn’t hurt me so much. I don’t think he felt bad for me but was just tired of me complaining. He fastened them with plastic zip ties, and now those are digging into me.
The chain is just long enough that I can stand up next to the bed to use my “bathroom”—a tall, beige plastic trash can. He put a trash bag over the top, but it still smells so bad that it’s making me sick.
The chain isn’t long enough to let me open the curtains, or reach the switch for the overhead light. So when he leaves for work in the morning and turns it off, I have to sit in the dark until he comes back. He told me that he kept the light out of my reach so that I couldn’t flip it on and off to attract the neighbors’ attention.
He’s careful. He constantly peeks out the window to check if anybody is watching the house. Whenever he leaves he keeps a radio blasting in the upstairs hallway. That way, he says, nobody can hear me if I scream. It’s hard for me to even hear my TV. Is that girl he called his roommate still here? Who is she and why isn’t she helping me? After the first nights in the basement, I lost my voice screaming, so I don’t bother anymore. I know nobody can hear me over the radio. Sometimes he stays out all night, and that means it’s impossible to sleep with the noise, or even to think. I have a constant headache.
He has a weird mannequin, a woman’s torso with black hair that he dresses in a red fishnet tank top and props up in the kitchen. Sometimes he lays it down on the living room couch when he goes out. He says if a burglar tries to get into the house, he’ll see it and think somebody is home.
I still don’t know his first name. I can’t believe I know his kids. I met Anthony only once, and I haven’t seen Angie in a while. Why did I agree to come here to see her? I was having a bad day and made a bad decision. Now I will probably die because of it.
• • •
I hate wearing his ugly, baggy clothes. I even have to wear his underwear—big, nasty briefs. It’s like I’m wearing a prison uniform. The only thing I have left of my own is the bra I was wearing when I got here. I used to hate my work uniform, but now I’d give anything to have it back.
I eat once a day, if I’m lucky, McDonald’s or Burger King that he brings for me when he comes home. Often that’s at five or six in the evening, but sometimes it’s midnight, and I am so hungry.
After I finish eating, he tells me to strip, and he does it again.
When I’ve been here four days he asks, “Do you want to come downstairs and watch TV?”
The last thing I want to do is spend more time with him. But I’d love to get out of this room and away from the smell and these chains, even for a few minutes.
“Okay,” I say, trying not to look at him.
He unlocks the chain and walks me downstairs. The door to his roommate’s bedroom is closed.
We sit on the couch and he turns on the news. My mom and Beth are on Channel 5, being interviewed in our house.
“It’s been a hard week, and it’s getting harder,” my mom tells the reporter, wiping her eyes with a tissue. She’s sitting on the couch, where I used to cuddle up beside her. “She never made it home. Somewhere between there and here, something happened, and nobody can figure it out.”
Beth is crying. “I’m hoping she’s out there somewhere,” she says. “I hope nothing happened to her. Maybe somebody’s got her, drugged her or something. Just bring her home.”
I’m crying, too, but glad I’m on the news, because that means people are looking for me. Maybe somebody will see this interview and remember something.
“Your mom looks really upset,” he says. There’s no sympathy in his voice, it’s just an observation, as if he had nothing to do with her misery. He flips around the channels looking for other news reports about me and finds them on Channel 8 and Channel 3. He can’t take his eyes off the TV.
I look at him. He has an odd expression on his face, and then I realize what it is: He’s proud. He’s admiring his work, he feels like he’s done something big.
This makes him feel important.
It’s Sunday. I’ve been gone six days. And so far, he’s raped me at least twenty-five times. It’s been four or five times every day.
He’s out the door at five a.m. to go to work. Then he’s back around eight or nine and strips off his bus driver’s uniform—black jeans and a burgundy shirt with a little yellow logo for Cleveland Public Schools. After he’s done with me, he goes back to work and drives little kids until lunchtime, when he comes home and forces himself on me again.
Then in the evening, he does it again—sometimes several times. He always leaves my chains on.
He slobbers on my face and is obsessed with my breasts. He’s always touching my chest and telling me, “These boobs are mine.”
I am learning that the more it hurts me, the more he likes it, and that it’s over quicker when I don’t fight. What would be the point, anyway? I’m chained to a radiator, so where could I go?
I told him I would like something to write on, and he asked if I wanted a journal. I said yes, and he came home today with a blue diary with flowers on its cover.
“You can write what you want,” he says, “but don’t write any names.”
I know he might read this, so I have to be careful about what I say. But I’m going to write to my family. Maybe that will feel like talking to them on the phone or sending them a letter. I miss them so much. I want to let them know I’m alive.
When he leaves I begin my first entry, by the light of the TV:
4/27/03. Sunday. One week.
I never thought I would miss my mom sooooo much! But it’s sooo true. You never know what you got ’til it’s gone! I just can’t wait to go home. I’m 17 now, but don’t have a life. But he told me I’m young and will go home before summer. Another two months! Tomorrow it will be a week I’ve been here—so I’ve survived this long. I’ll just try not to think about it. But it’s hard.
I saw my mom and Beth crying on TV. My mom said, “Mandy I love you” and I started bawling. I love you Mom. See ya sooooon!
It feels good to write that. I am glad they don’t know how horrible it is here.
Eminem’s new song, “Sing for the Moment,” is on the radio. I can’t believe it has some of Aerosmith’s music in it, the chorus from “Dream On,” my mom’s favorite. As I listen to it I get lost in the music, and it takes me back home for a few minutes. I can picture myself there with my mom, safe and free.
I know I haven’t always been the best daughter. Sometimes I would argue with her over some pretty stupid stuff. I wish I hadn’t. When I get out of here, I won’t do that anymore.
He controls when I eat, what I see, what I hear. But he cannot control what I think, so I am going to take my mind somewhere else when he climbs on me.
I have almost nothing in this room, but I have an idea. I have a few pictures of my mom, dad, and nieces in my purse, and I’m going to make a family album. To make a frame I carefully rip apart an empty box of Crunch ’n Munch that he got me. I chew a piece of gum and then separate it into tiny pieces that I stick on the back of the pictures and press them into the cardboard from the box. Then I prop it up on the table next to my bed.
When he is doing horrible things to my body, I look at my mom’s face. I imagine her laughing. I picture her smoking her cigarettes and gabbing on the phone, or cooking in the kitchen. I look into her eyes and lose myself in her.
And my mom and I get through it.
I see my mom on the noon news. She is showing a reporter my bedroom and the pink box where I keep my money, insisting that there’s no way I could have run away from home. Who would run away in a Burger King uniform, leaving all her clothes at home and a hundred dollars in her dresser? She says I’m not the runaway kind of kid, anyway. And I’m not.
It’s so weird to see pictures of myself on the news, and my mom giving strangers a tour of my room. I never thought I’d ever be on TV. We’re a normal, nothing-special family, kind of messed up like everybody, no different from all the other families around here just struggling to get by.
Now everybody knows my name, and they’re all looking for me. I’m in a big city, close to downtown and the crowds at the Indians baseball games and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Didn’t anybody see me getting into his van? Maybe a neighbor on Seymour saw me come in here? Someone has to rescue me.
The news says it’s nice outside today, but there could be a tornado and I wouldn’t know. The only light comes from the screen of the little black-and-white TV, the one I had in the basement. It’s maybe twelve inches and has rabbit-ears antenna. I have it on a little chair at the foot of the bed and watch Maury and other shows my mom likes. It’s comforting to think that we might be seeing the same shows at the same time.
All day long all I can hear is that annoying radio in the hall. When he’s home in the evening, he turns it off, and then I can hear lawn mowers and cars going by. I keep trying to make my mind wander away when he forces himself on me, but it’s hard.
“You said you’d take me home—when are you going to do that?” I ask as he gets dressed.
“You’re young. You have plenty of time. What’s a few months?”
I am furious but I reply quietly, “Maybe it’s nothing to you, but it’s a lot to me. This is my life you have taken.”
“Maybe the last week of June,” he says. “You just gotta be patient.”
Another two months, if he’s not lying. I don’t trust anything he says, but it helps me to think it will be over in two months. I can make it that long. I choose to believe him.
I never went to church much, but I know there is a God and I know he must have a different plan for me than this.
• • •
One day he comes in at midnight and sits at the end of the bed, holding my cell phone.
“I called your mother,” he says. “I told her that we are in love, and that you are my wife now.”
Shocked, I start crying and ask, “You talked to my mom?”
“Yeah, I called her with your phone,” he says. “She asked when you would be home, and I told her I didn’t know. I told her you were safe.”
“Can I talk to her?” I ask. “I want her to know that I’m okay.”
He ignores me. “I talked to your sister, Beth, too. I told them you were okay. I said you were with me now.”
Maybe this is good; they know I’m alive. Or maybe it’s bad, because they’ll think I’ve been taken by some crazy guy and are scared about what he’s doing to me. Why did he call them? Does he think that if they believe that I ran away, they won’t search for me? He doesn’t know my family. They’ll never stop looking for me. But he’s such a liar. I bet he didn’t even call them.
He lets me listen to a couple of the voice messages on my phone. One is from my little niece Mariyah, telling me, “Please come home.” Another one is from my friend Mary from Burger King. I guess she didn’t know I was missing, because she left a message saying, “Which one is your house? I’m trying to find it for your birthday party.”
Hearing their voices makes me cry so hard I can barely breathe.
“Can I please call them and tell them I’m alive?” I ask, begging him.
“You can write to them,” he says. “But there are rules. You have to tell them that you ran away. You left on your own and you’re okay, so they shouldn’t worry about you.”
“I won’t do that,” I tell him. “I’ll never tell my family that I ran away. That would hurt them so much. I would rather have them wondering what happened to me than think that I would leave them.”
“Okay,” he says.
He rapes me again.
They haven’t shown me on the news at all today. Over and over they run a story about bad lettuce making people sick. I don’t think he actually called my mom. If he did, that would be bigger news than lettuce.
I heard on the news about Elizabeth Smart, the girl in Utah who was kidnapped and released last month. The lunatic who took her also said she was his wife. He kept her nine months! If she can survive for that long, I know I can, too.
He’s back and he says he wants to stay with me all night long. He keeps calling me his “temporary wife.”
I move over to the very edge of the bed, as far away from him as I can get. But he cuddles up behind me and reaches around and takes my hand. It’s like he thinks we’re a couple.
I lie still until he falls asleep, then I slip my hand out of his.
He has ruined my life and my body. I’m filthy. My toilet is a trash can. I’m hungry and cold and chained up.
And he wants to hold my hand.
Getting to go downstairs to the bathroom is what I look forward to most. That crummy little bathroom has become the highlight of my week. I miss feeling clean. Today I finally get to shower and brush my teeth—it’s been days. It feels good.
I just start to feel the water wash him off me when he steps into the shower.
I think about killing myself. But if I do, he wins.
I have to keep it together until I can figure out how to escape. To keep from sliding into complete sadness I try to focus on anything good. I felt hot water today. I heard Eminem on the radio. I found a penny in the pocket of his old sweatpants and decide it’s my lucky penny. I have pictures of my mom and dad, and they remind me that I need to stay strong so I can see them again.
But it’s hard. These chains are so tight that even with the socks wrapped around them they cut into my stomach. It’s impossible to sleep, because I keep rolling over onto the padlock. But even worse than the physical pain is the mental torture of never knowing what’s next.
I’m learning that they have TV shows that teach everything—cooking, dance, languages. I saw one that teaches meditation, how to relax, how to rid your mind of what’s bothering you. I am going to look for that one. I have to get better at making my mind fly away from this place.
I close my eyes.
“Please, Lord, make this end. Please let me go home to my family. Please keep them safe and bring me home soon,” I say over and over.
I turn to my photo of Mom, kiss it, and tell her good night.
Tomorrow is May 1. A new month.
This is how I’m going to think about time: Every day that passes means I’m a day closer to this being over, a day closer to being home.
Hope is my only option.
May 2003: The Woman in the Other Room
“Do you want to help me with the laundry?”
No, I don’t want to do his laundry. But I do want to get out of this room, even for a few minutes, even to wash his filthy clothes. “Okay, sure,” I tell him, and he takes a key off the keychain on his belt and opens the padlock on my stomach. The chains fall to the ground, and I feel fifty pounds lighter.
We walk into the hallway, and he points at the closed door of the bedroom where I saw that girl sleeping ten days ago.
“We have to clean up this room,” he says, unlocking the door.
I’ve been thinking about her. Why does he call her his roommate? Could she be part of this somehow? I thought about yelling out to her, in case she’s still here, but I never know when he’s home or not. Sometimes he pretends to leave, then creeps back up and opens my door. He tells me he’s testing me and says, “I don’t know if I can trust you yet.”
I notice now that her door is also locked from the outside. Oh, no. She must be another prisoner.
I step inside and see her sitting on the bed. We look at each other, and I can’t read her expression or tell what she’s thinking. She seems in a daze. I can’t see if she’s chained because she’s sitting under a blanket. She’s tiny and looks older than me.
“This is my roommate,” he says, but doesn’t tell me her name. “This is Amanda,” he tells her.
We both say hi. Neither of us says another word.
He hands me a plastic garbage bag and orders, “Pick up the trash.”
The room is a mess. I start stuffing pizza boxes and old bags from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King into the bag. Pizza crusts and dirty napkins are everywhere and look like they’ve been piling up for weeks. How long has she been here?
“It smells like a hamster cage in here,” I say.
I’m not trying to be funny, but that makes him laugh. She just watches and doesn’t say anything.
She has a TV. I’ve been on the news lately—my face, my name. She must know who I am. She seems as afraid of him as I am. Who is she?
“Okay, that’s enough, let’s go,” he says when I finish filling the trash bag.
I look at the girl again, but she doesn’t look back. He leads me into the hallway, locks her in her room, and stays close behind me as we go down the stairs. At the door to the basement, I stop. I haven’t been down there since those first two horrible nights. I hope this isn’t some kind of trick or new punishment. But I have no choice because he tells me to keep going.
“Start with these,” he says, pointing to a huge pile of dirty clothes.
I guess he really does want to do laundry.
I start sorting whites and colors. As I put the first load into the machine, something catches my eye amid all the junk in the basement: on top of a stack of photos is a picture of Jesus, with light radiating from around his head and his heart wrapped in thorns. He has beautiful eyes that seem to stare directly at me. There are some prayers in Spanish on the back: Novena al Sagrado Corazón de Jesús.
“Can I have this?” I ask him.
“Sure,” he says. “Why not?”
After he orders me back up to my room, chains me, locks my door, and leaves, I set the Jesus picture against the rabbit ears on top of the TV. Now I have my mom watching over me from the bedside table, and Jesus doing the same from the TV.
I decide to write in my diary every time he attacks me. I won’t use the word “rape” in case he ever reads it. But I need a record of what he is doing to me. I want him someday, somehow, to be held responsible for every single time he steals a piece of me. I can’t let him get away with this.
It was three times today—morning, lunchtime, and when he came home from work—so in the corner of my diary page, I mark 3x. He’ll never know what it means. I’ll never forget.
I’m crying, blaming myself for being so stupid for getting in that van. I was minutes away from home. It wasn’t that cold; why didn’t I just walk? Did I bring this on myself?
The FBI is on the news, announcing that there’s a reward of up to $10,000 for information about me—that makes me feel a little better. Maybe if somebody thinks there’s money in it, they’ll report something. I have to believe somebody saw me get in the van with him.
Help me, somebody, please.
The hours go so slowly, and I’ve told him how depressed I am. Today he brings me a coloring book and crossword puzzles, saying that they’ll help pass the time. It’s so dark, and I’m so hungry. A little after five, after I haven’t eaten all day, he brings me Pringles and gross little frozen pizza rolls.
DJ was on the news. He tells a reporter I called him twice for a ride when I was leaving Burger King, but he doesn’t say why he didn’t answer. I guess he just didn’t hear the phone. If he had picked up, I wouldn’t be here.
The news report also says that the police think I was taken by somebody I knew. They think I got into a white car with some guys. Who told them that? It wasn’t a white car!
He keeps coming in here. It never stops.